Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a marvel of modernist poetry. It is only 246 words long, divided into thirteen sections, each labeled with the corresponding Roman numeral, and a surface reading will show that it is about, not surprisingly, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Reading deeper, though, will allow the reader to understand that much more is going on in those scant 246 words.
Wallace Stevens needed to find new ways of looking at common things seeing as he spent his working life behind a desk at an insurance company. This made him
concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life. (source here)
Of course, the poem is not actually about blackbirds, or looking at them, but
a work that well demonstrates the power of poetic language; transcending definite interpretation, like myth, it provides a match and a mirror for the engaged reader. A match, as the verse ignites thought and interpretation, and a mirror, as this process of interpretation (in conjunction with the nature of the verse) allows us to reflect back upon our subjective assignation of value and meaning, offering the opportunity to gain insight through the process. (source here)
One stanza of the poem, the eighth, serves nicely to illustrate the above analysis.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
One possible explanation of the stanza is that the “noble accents” are that of Stevens’ boss and the “lucid, inescapable rhythms” are those of his office. In that interpretation, Stevens’ knowledge of the hierarchy at work is informed by the literal pecking order of blackbirds setting up territory, marking their turf with their noble “conk-a-ree” song. But, definite interpretation is impossible, as Stevens could just as easily be referring to the changing of the seasons with “lucid, inescapable rhythms” and then the blackbird’s migrations and life cycle would be how the “blackbird is involved / In what I know.” Either of these interpretations is entirely subjective, and anyone who reads the poem will come up with a completely different interpretation. Mine, for example, were strongly influenced by the knowledge that Stevens worked an office job and by my familiarity with Red-winged Blackbirds. Another reader, with different knowledge and experience would probably not come away from this stanza with the meaning that I did.
Either way, it is food for thought, and a reminder that there are at least thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
And here is a blackbird sharing his “lucid, inescapable rhythms” with the world.
This post was originally published on 30 November 2007. It was republished as a way to introduce it to readers who have found 10,000 Birds since then.
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